John Wain Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

John Wain built his reputation as a novelist in the 1950’s, his first novel being Hurry on Down (1953), which was published in the United States as Born in Captivity in 1954 and which was followed in subsequent decades by Where the Rivers Meet (1988), Comedies (1990), and Hungry Generations (1994). His further efforts include several volumes of poetry, criticism, and literary biography. Among his plays is Johnson Is Leaving: A Monodrama (pb. 1994). He also wrote Sprightly Running: Part of an Autobiography (1962) in which he declared, “I would be a short-story writer [over being a novelist] if it weren’t so impossible to make a living at it.”

An influential essayist, editor, critic, and literary biographer, Wain believes his poetry to be his most important literary contribution.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

John Wain won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1958 for Preliminary Essays (1957), the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and Heinemann Bequest Award in 1975 for Samuel Johnson (1974) and the Whitbread Literary Award in 1985 for Young Shoulders (1982; pb. in U.S. as The Free Zone Starts Here, 1982). In 1973, he was elected the twenty-seventh professor of poetry at the University of Oxford. He holds honorary degrees from the University of Keele and the University of Loughborough and became an honorary fellow of St. John’s College, Oxford University, in 1985.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

A complete man of letters, John Wain (wayn) published short stories, poetry, drama, many scholarly essays, and a highly respected biography in addition to his novels. Significant among Wain’s writings other than novels are several collections of short stories, including Nuncle, and Other Stories (1960), Death of the Hind Legs, and Other Stories (1966), The Life Guard (1971), and King Caliban, and Other Stories (1978); and volumes of poetry, such as Mixed Feelings (1951), A Word Carved on a Sill (1956), Weep Before God: Poems (1961), Wildtrack: A Poem (1965), Letters to Five Artists (1969), The Shape of Feng (1972), Feng: A Poem (1975), and Open Country (1987). Wain also published criticism that communicates a sensitive and scholarly appreciation of good books. Readers should pay particular attention to Preliminary Essays (1957), Essays on Literature and Ideas (1963), A House for the Truth: Critical Essays (1972), Professing Poetry (1977), and his autobiography, Sprightly Running: Part of an Autobiography (1962). Most readers believe that Samuel Johnson (1974) is the best and most lasting of all Wain’s nonfiction. In this monumental biography, many of the commitments reflected in Wain’s other writings come through clearly and forcefully.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

John Wain is noted for his observance of and compassion for human sorrow. His writing reflects his determination to speak to a wider range of readers than that addressed by many of his modernist predecessors; it reflects his faith in the common reader to recognize and respond to abiding philosophical concerns. These concerns include his sense of the dignity of human beings in the middle of an oftentimes cruel, indifferent, and cynical world. His concern is with a world caught up in time, desire, and disappointment. His novel Young Shoulders, an examination of the ramifications of a fatal accident on the people left behind, won the 1982 Whitbread Best Novel Award.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Amis, Kingsley. Kingsley Amis: Memoirs. New York: Summit Books, 1991. Gives a vivid glimpse of in-fighting among aspiring writers. Amis hints wryly that Wain envied the bestsellerdom of Lucky Jim that placed his own first novel, Hurry on Down, into the shade.

Bayley, John. “Obituary: John Wain.” The Independent, May 25, 1994, p. 14. In this biographical sketch of Wain’s life and literary career, Bayley compares him with Kingsley Amis and praises his biography of Samuel Johnson.

Burgess, Anthony. The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967. Expanded from an earlier study, Burgess’s work groups Wain with other class-conscious British fiction writers.

Gerard, David E. John Wain: A Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1987. Contains a comprehensive annotated bibliography of Wain’s work. Lists materials of critical and biographical interest, including radio, television, and sound recordings. Also includes other critical and biographical references and reviews of works by Wain.

Gindin, James J. Postwar British Fiction: New Accents and Attitudes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962. Gindin’s chapter “The Moral Center of John Wain’s Fiction” discusses Wain’s use of morality as a thematic and...

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